Trumpeter swans are once again gliding through local lakes and marshes as they settle in for the winter, their distinctive calls resembling a high school brass section rehearsal. About 50 Trumpeter swan experts from all over the U.S. and Canada also flocked to the Cowichan Valley this week for a biennial swan conference. Hosted by the Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society with the Trumpeter Swan Society, the gathering ends Friday with a gala event including a speech by artist Robert Bateman, closing the six-week WildWings festival.
Coincidentally, this year marks the centennial of the Migratory Bird Convention between the U.S. and Canada, signed in 1916 by Woodrow Wilson and King George V. “It’s a great reason to celebrate,” said John Cornely, a veteran refuge biologist and now the Colorado-based senior conservation advisor for the society. “We thought for a long time we would lose trumpeter swans completely back in the 1930s we only knew of 69 in the U.S.” Another 50-100 were found in Canada.
Not surprisingly, the near extinction was due to excessive hunting. In a presentation to the conference, Cornely pointed to Hudson’s Bay Company records from the early 1800s indicating sales of more than 1 million swan and goose quills (for writing) every year. Swan skins were also in demand.
By 1968, a range wide survey showed some improvement but still fewer than 5,000 trumpeters continent-wide. By contrast the current population is over 60,000, according to the most recent 2015 survey. “It’s one of the most remarkable recovery stories in wildlife in the world. They’re magnificent birds – the largest waterfowl and the only purely native North American swan,” he said. “These birds get in your soul. We’ve done so much damage. I feel we have a responsibility to our fellow creatures to help them come back.”
Historically, western birds nest in Alaska, the Yukon and northern B.C. and winter in B.C. and Washington State. East of the Rockies, the population is the result of extensive breeding and conservation efforts for birds that once wintered in the Chesapeake Bay or the Gulf Coast in huge numbers. (more info) Despite the comeback, there is concern about continued wetland loss. “People get comfortable,” said Cornely, adding the new president-elect in the U.S. a wild card. “We have to be vigilant here because there are always threats to wildlife.”